Sectionals: Finals preview

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As I look out my window at the first snowfall of the season, I find myself wondering whether or not the three finals scheduled for Thursday will ultimately end up getting postponed. The final for Class AA has already been pushed back to Friday, so they could theoretically play all four finals that day. But I’m going to assume for now that we will have soccer tomorrow, and to get everyone ready, I’ve prepared previews for each of the three games.

Class A final – No. 2 Port Chester (16-1-2) vs. No. 1 Byram Hills (15-2-1), 6:30 p.m. at John Jay

Key players: Byram Hills – Jon Berry, Sr., F; Ryan Golden, Sr., GK; Joshua Beinhacker, Sr., MF; Justin Pollack, Sr., MF; Sam Ganeles, Jr., D.; Port Chester – Preston Higgins, Sr., MF; Jose Gonzalez, Sr., GK; Steven Hernandez, Fr., F; Bryan Suertegaray, Sr., D; David Pena, Soph., D.
Outlook: After a one-year absence, the Bobcats have returned to the section final for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. The Rams return to the final after a heartbreaking loss to Lakeland in this very game last season – a game that Port Chester was widely expected to win after an undefeated regular season. The Rams were the team that prevented Byram from reaching the final last season with a semifinal win in PKs, and with these teams also playing in the same league, it’s safe to say that they are very familiar with one another.

Port Chester won its first meeting with the Bobcats this season, 1-0, and then played to a 0-0 tie in the second game. Each of these teams have been known to put up goals in a hurry against most opponents, but not against each other. Neither team has allowed a goal yet in the postseason, so don’t be surprised with a 1-0 result. Both keepers – Golden for Byram and Gonzalez for PC – are in the upper echelon in Section 1.

The Rams’ focus – just like any team that plays Byram – will be stopping Berry, who is one of the leading candidates for player of the year. The senior has been a scoring machine this season, leading the section with 27 goals. But as the Bobcats have realized, it’s much more difficult to create space for their go-to guy at this time of year. Port Chester has developed into a top-notch defense (a far-cry from the offensive juggernaut that coach John Cafaldo fielded last season), and Berry is no secret. What we’ve seen Byram do in the past two games is switch to a 4-4-2 in the second half, as opposed to its traditional 4-5-1. Moving another forward up enables the Bobcats to create more space for Berry by giving him someone to work with, and also allows them to use him as a decoy. In its semifinal against Lakeland, Byram’s only goal came as a result of Berry splitting out wide and creating a huge opening in the middle of the field. I’ll be curious to see which formation coach Matty Allen – who usually prefers a one-forward look – decides to go with.

As for the Rams, they’ve played their last two games without star midfielder Winston Arroyo, and they will be forced to do so again in the final. That puts a lot of extra pressure on Higgins and Hernandez to create offense, but Hernandez has been up to the task. The super freshman has scored five of PC’s six postseason goals – a few of which in clutch moments. He plays with the maturity of an upperclassman, and has the talent of a future college player. It may be a lot to ask of Hernandez to continue to shoulder the load, but that’s probably what the Rams will need to win this game. I’d expect Ganeles to draw the assignment of marking the freshman after doing an excellent job against Pelham striker Aidan Murray in the quarters.

I originally picked Byram to win this game before the playoffs began because I felt that the Bobcats have a better team than they did last season, while PC has a little bit less firepower than its 2011 squad did. With Arroyo out, the Rams have a huge hole in the middle of their formation, and that’s exactly where Byram’s strength is. The previous four times that Byram made it this far, they won and advanced to the state tournament. Prediction: Byram Hills 1, Port Chester 0.

Class B final – No. 13 North Salem (11-8) vs. No. 3 Blind Brook (14-3-2), 4:30 p.m. at Brewster

Key players: Blind Brook – Ben Seguljic, Sr., GK; Jake Starr, Sr., D; Joe DiBerardino, Jr., F; Samuel Nadell, Sr., MF; Zach Streichler, Sr., D. North Salem – Johnny Law, Sr., GK; Tom Cole, Sr., F; Kevin Zajc, Sr., MF; Connor Murphy, Jr. F; James Langelotti, Sr., MF.
Outlook: If you enjoy great goalkeeping, I would highly suggest that you make it to Brewster in time to watch this one. In my opinion, these are the two best goalkeepers that I saw all season from Class B, and wouldn’t you know it, they now find themselves facing off in the final.

For the defending champs, Seguljic is widely considered to be the best keeper in Section 1, and is the only goalie I know of from the section who is committed to play at a Division 1 college (Providence). He’s the total package with size, athleticism and smarts. But Law is no slouch, either. He was the best player on the field when I saw North Salem beat Lakeland earlier in the season.

Coming into the postseason, I would have called the Tigers the more talented offensive team because of the two skilled forwards that they can boast up top – Cole and Murphy. Not many small schools have the luxury of having a duo that works as hard as those two do to create scoring chances, and Cole is coming off of a two-goal performance against Valhalla in the semis. But the Trojans seem to have found a new gear in the playoffs – which included an eight-goal breakout performance against Hastings in the quarters. Berardino has become a go-to guy of sorts, but this team isn’t as one dimensional as it was last season with the explosive Lucas McBride being relied on for the majority of its goals.

With all of that said about each team’s attack, don’t be surprised if this game this game is tied at 0-0 at the end of regulation. Seguljic has allowed just four goals in his last 13 games, while Law seems to be finding his stride again since returning from injury a couple of weeks ago. The other thing to take into consideration is that both of these teams are experienced playing in tight games. North Salem and Blind Brook play two of the toughest schedules of any teams in Class B, so they both come in battle-tested. The fact that they’ve each made it this far is a testament to the benefits of being challenged throughout the season.

With the way that the Trojans have been playing, I’m having a tough time sticking with my original pick of North Salem, but I’m no flip-flopper. I have confidence that Cole and Co. will create enough chances to get one past Seguljic at some point, and that may be all it takes. Prediction: North Salem 1, Blind Brook 0.

Class C final – No. 2 Haldane (10-6) vs. No. 1 Solomon Schechter (10-3-2), 4:30 p.m. at John Jay

Key players: Solomon Schechter – Michael Franklin, Sr., MF; Ari Leffell, Soph., MF; Nick Wein, Sr., D; Ben Burton, Soph., GK; Noah Goldberg, Soph., MF. Haldane – James Rubino, Sr., MF; Ciaran Dillon, Sr., MF; Jay Marchese, Jr., MF; Aidan Draper, Soph., F.
Outlook: While the finals for Classes A and B seem like they should be low-scoring affairs, this game seems to have a bit more firepower. Both Schechter and Haldane have earned winning records despite mostly playing much larger schools because of each team’s ability to find the back of the net.

The Blue Devils have a talented young striker up top in Draper, who led the team with nine goals (including one in Haldane’s semifinal against Hamilton), but they also have guys who are capable of pushing up and scoring from the midfield. Marchese has eight goals, while Dillon has chipped in seven. The same can be said for the Lions, who have received major scoring contributions from midfielders Franklin and Leffell. Franklin leads the team with 11 goals, but Leffell has been a revelation in his sophomore season with eight goals and 15 assists. Haldane has scored 33 goals this season, while Schechter is averaging close to three per game.

These games usually come down to who gets better play from their defense, and more specifically, their goalkeeper. But I think momentum is also a factor, and Haldane has plenty of that after a thrilling win over defending champion Hamilton in the final. Call it a hunch, but I’m going to go with the Blue Devils in a tight one. Prediction: Haldane 2, Solomon Schechter 1.

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About Author

VINCENT Z. MERCOGLIANO has been with The Journal News and LoHud.com since March 2010. He graduated from New Rochelle High School in 2005 and from Hofstra University in 2009 with a degree in broadcast journalism. He currently covers boys soccer, wrestling and baseball, while assisting with LoHud's Yankees coverage.

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